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Profiling the Aged: Fat Cats or Hungry Victims?

September 28, 1995

Just how well off are the nation’s elderly?

Endless oratory from debates over Medicare, Social Security and other programs illustrate just how polarized opinions are on this subject. Republican Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming calls the 65-plus crowd ``greedy geezers″ _ oldsters in Bermuda shorts teeing off near their second homes in Florida. Old people ``care most about themselves _ even at the cost of future generations,″ concluded a study by Third Millennium, a young-adult group that is lobbying for Social Security reform.

On the other side of the debate, older people are seen as helpless victims _ frail folks saving coins for what sometimes is the best meal they can buy _ dog food. They ``live on low incomes and they know where every penny goes,″ Democratic Rep. Pete Stark of California has said.

``Depending on whom you talk to, 1/8the elderly 3/8 are either `bloodsucking vultures’ or `pathetic creatures,‴ says Rebecca Chekouras, a vice president of Age Wave Inc., Emeryville, Calif., which advises companies on how to sell to the aging.

So who’s right? ``There’s some truth in just about everything,″ says David Wise of the National Bureau of Economic Research in Cambridge, Mass. The elderly’s economic status is far more varied than that of any other age group, a slew of research concludes. Timothy Smeeding, a professor of economics at Syracuse University, says the ``least interesting statistic for the elderly is the median.″

Well above the median, and playing gin rummy at the Columbia Country Club just outside Washington, D.C., 89-year-old Edward Warner says he has invested quite a bit in stocks and has ``a good pension, thank God,″ from his career as an insurance-company executive; Social Security accounts for only 7 percent of his income. He nods at plaid-jacketed buddies in the club’s Grill Room and confides that ``none of these people need″ government help.

Overall, today’s elderly do have higher living standards than any 65-plus generation in U.S. history. Government-assistance programs like Medicare combined with pension benefits and postwar prosperity to let many own their homes while also saving for later. They are better educated and healthier than ever, according to a May 1995 Population Reference Bureau study. Nearly one of three golfers is over 65, as are 60 percent of cruise vacationers, the study says.

One key measure of how people are faring is the poverty level. In 1993, when 23 percent of all children were below the poverty threshold, a much smaller 12 percent of elderly people were considered poor, according to the Census Bureau. (For the elderly, the 1993 poverty level was $6,930 for a person living alone and $8,741 for a couple.) The elderly clearly make more money than before; their median income has more than doubled, in 1992 dollars, over the past 35 years, the Census Bureau says.

All of which is heartening _ until you look at details. There is still considerable poverty among the elderly, and much depends on their sex, race and marital status. In 1992, for example, elderly white men on average made $15,276, about 2.5 times more than the older black and Hispanic women at the other end of the spectrum.

In 1993, 43 percent of elderly black women living alone were poor. Not far from the Columbia Country Club’s well-clipped greens lives one of them, Annie Brown, a 74-year-old widow who survives in Washington mainly on her monthly $700 Social Security payments. For 75 cents, she gets a chicken or Salisbury steak lunch at a center for the elderly, where she comes daily. ``I’ve got barely enough to live on″ after 40 years serving cafeteria food and cleaning doctors’ offices, Mrs. Brown says.

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